Portland Thorns owner Merritt Paulson discouraged Paul Riley from applying for a job with the U.S. women’s national team to keep the details of the coach’s dismissal from the Thorns under wraps, ESPN reported Thursday.
Riley was fired from his position as head coach of the Thorns in 2015. The club described his departure as a non-renewal of his contract due to poor performance.
Behind closed doors, though, then-Thorns player Mana Shim had accused Riley of sexual harassment and coercion. Her account, corroborated by then-teammate Sinead Farrelly, only became public in October 2021 via a report published in The Athletic.
Because the Thorns kept the claims made against Riley quiet, the coach was able to continue his NWSL coaching career with the Western New York Flash, the franchise that later became the North Carolina Courage.
In 2019, while Riley was head coach of the Courage, his name appeared on a shortlist for the USWNT manager position. His pursuit of the role would invite heightened scrutiny of his past, including his tenure with the Thorns.
Paulson told North Carolina Courage owner Steve Malik in a phone call that Riley had been fired for cause by the Thorns and that he should withdraw his name from USWNT consideration, ESPN reported.
The move came after the U.S. Soccer Federation was warned that the specifics of Riley’s firing would be unearthed if he was named USWNT manager. U.S. Soccer informed Paulson of this development, per ESPN.
Riley withdrew his name from consideration on Aug. 20, 2019.
The details of the phone call between Paulson and Malik first emerged when law firm DLA Piper made a presentation earlier this year to update Portland Thorns and Portland Timbers employees on the organization’s handling of its investigation into Riley.
The reported phone call undercuts both Paulson and Malik’s public statements on Riley following The Athletic’s story. Malik released a statement that read: “During his employment with the Courage, we had no knowledge of allegations of sexual harassment or coercion. When we learned of the horrific allegations in last week’s reporting, we took those seriously and immediately terminated Mr. Riley.”
The Portland Thorns released a statement in response to ESPN’s reporting Thursday night.
“The story ESPN published today was based on a privileged and confidential video call between outside counsel and Thorns employees to keep them updated on the progress of DLA Pieper’s investigation regarding the dismissal of Paul Riley in 2015, which at the time was incomplete,” the statement said. “The selective use of information taken from this conversation combined with inaccurate conclusions provide for an extremely biased and misleading article.”
The Portland Thorns’ statement drew the ire of former Thorns players, including USWNT star Alex Morgan, who tweeted about the ESPN story Thursday night.
“We (the players of the NWSL, especially players in Portland) deserve so much better than a boys club protecting their own,” Morgan said. “Also, that statement in response by the Portland Thorns is just pathetic.”
Shim also commented on the ESPN reporting, tweeting: “The problem was not just that that they knew and said nothing. They did everything they could to keep the truth from coming out. We need to protect players and hold people accountable when they don’t.”